How New Executives Can Mitigate Employee Resistance

Many new executives fail because they aren’t able to combat initial employee resistance to their leadership style and ideas. Here’s how executives can solve the issue.

You’re new to an executive-level role — congratulations! You’re probably a mixture of excited, nervous and terrified. This is for good reason, as about 40 percent of executives fail in their first 18 months in a new role, according to an oft cited study by Institute of Executive Development.

As an executive leadership adviser for Fortune 500 companies, I’ve been studying the root cause of executive failures for two decades. While there are a number of indicators that foreshadow executive failure — an inability to create buy-in, poor leadership style, ego-driven decision-making, among others — the same issue sits at the heart of each of them: resistance.

When employees, colleagues or peers resist you, they don’t support your ideas (privately or publicly), are less likely to be compliant (overtly or when you’re not looking) and generally drag their feet on adopting or supporting your agenda.

All of this significantly increases your risk for failure. You can have the most innovative business strategy, a high-profile network and enviable experience, but if you can’t get people to agree to what you’re suggesting, you will fail.

Here are three steps to help you get your authority and good ideas accepted.

Conduct a Thoughtful Assessment

When you’re new to a role, it can be tempting to push new ideas and plans quickly. After all, you have something to prove, right?. But this is an easy and fast way to trigger resistance in others.When you haven’t taken time to do your due diligence — learn the people, learn the culture, learn the function, learn the history and gain appropriate context — your ideas will seem half-baked, usually because they probably are.This strategy, or lack thereof, also sends the signal that you’re not as interested in others insights as you are in your own ideas. This isn’t a great way to be perceived out of the gate.Instead, take time to learn as much as possible. If you haven’t been tasked with a fast business turnaround, you have a solid 2-3 months to conduct a thoughtful assessment of your function. Ask thoughtful questions of the people around you. This will not make you look weak. Instead, it will position you as a leader who respects the experience and knowledge of those around you and who is realistic about what it takes to learn a business and offer valuable strategies for how to move it forward. That’s a hard approach for others to resist.

Ask Powerful Questions of a Broad Set of Stakeholders
Often, executives seek input from a small number of staff or fellow executives. But this only gives you a narrow view of what’s happening across the organization. Instead, spend time with your boss, your direct reports, peers and internal or external customers of your function.When meeting with these stakeholders, it’s tempting to ask generic questions like, “What are your impressions of the sales function I now lead?” Or worse, to just make small talk.But if the aim is to create a powerful strategy and mitigate resistance, you want thoughtful insights. Let’s say you’ve come in to lead the sales team. Here are a set of questions to ask instead:

— What is the best thing our sales team does?
— What’s the most frustrating thing about working with the sales team?
— If there were one thing we could do differently that would make it easier for you to be successful, what would that be?
— What mistakes have you seen others in my role make?
— If you were in my shoes, what would you focus on?
— What do the best leaders do here, that perhaps others do not?

It doesn’t take a lot of questions to spark an honest and insightful conversation, or to create the trust and buy-in you’re looking for.

Revisit With the People You Met
Once you’ve taken time to meet with your stakeholders and gather their collective insights, be sure to schedule follow-ups and let them know how their input influenced or informed your plans for the function.When people know they have been heard, understood and that their ideas were taken into account, they are immediately more receptive — and less resistant — to your ideas. After all, it’s difficult to resist something you felt you were part in shaping.

Our initial reaction to stepping into a new executive role is to show everyone around us how much we know and, therefore, how capable we are of doing the job we’ve been hired to do. Unfortunately, this drive to prove ourselves is what creates the most resistance.

Emily Bermes is an executive leadership consultant and CEO of Emily Bermes & Associates based in Fort Wayne, Indiana. To comment, email